McAlester and Crowder might be only 14 miles apart, but the two Pittsburg County schools are at opposite ends of the state, enrollment-wise. So Monday’s opening-round showdown at the 32nd Bertha Frank Teague Mid-America Classic is a rare opportunity for the Class 5A Lady Buffs and the Class A Demonettes to play for county bragging rights.

“They’re only 14 miles away from us... our girls and their girls know each other,” McAlester coach David Holt said of the second-ranked Demonettes. We scrimmage every year, and we go to their team camp. We have a mutual respect for each other and know each other real well.

“We scrimmaged them and I’ve watched them play,” he added. “They have a good basketball team. They have a very good point guard (Alex Tucker) and decent size, they’re able to shoot, and they play good defense.”

Holt’s club got a late start because of football, and the Lady Buffs (ranked No. 7 in 5A) have played just two games (routs of Ardmore and Muskogee) coming into the Mid-America. Crowder, meanwhile, is unbeaten (9-0) and had already played about 40 percent of its schedule heading into the holiday break.

“I don’t know how good a match-up it is for us,” Holt said. “There are pros and cons to playing them, but I know a little more about them than I would another team from across the state. We didn’t really care who we matched up against... we’re just proud to be in the tournament.”

McAlester was eliminated by Ada from the Class 5A playoffs last March in the area tournament at Broken Arrow, but the Lady Buffs’ leading scorer, Jaci Bigham, watched that game from the sidelines after undergoing surgery to repair a torn ACL. Although Bigham — who joins Tucker in an outstanding group of point guards at this year’s Mid-America — is one of only two returning starters for McAlester, Holt said he expects good things from his re-tooled squad.

“We only have two returning starters, but we have some other girls with a lot of high school experience,” he explained. “Right now, we are playing an eight-man rotation. I’m excited about this team.

“It’s kind of hard to tell right now because we’ve only got one game under our belt, but I feel like we’re stronger in almost every area this year,” Holt added. “We don’t have a lot of size, and that could hurt us against bigger teams. We weren’t a whole lot bigger than that last year, but the girls we lost had a lot of experience.”

Bigham, a 5-7 senior, averaged 19.7 points and five assists last year, and she figures to be as important to her team as any player in the state this season. Holt said his star has apparently made a complete recovery from the knee injury that prematurely ended her junior campaign.

“For a lot of people, coming off an ACL injury will slow them down a lot, but Jaci has bounced back from it very well,” he noted. “She’s just as fearless as she’s ever been. Some people who didn’t know Jaci questioned her mental and physical toughness coming back from the injury, but she scored 22 points in our first game against Ardmore after sitting out most of the first half in foul trouble.

“She’s our go-to player,” Holt added. “She’s a great floor leader, and she does a great job for us. I think she’s the best point guard in the state. She may not be as quick as some of the others, but she makes up for that with her intelligence. She has a quick first step, and she’s an excellent passer.”

McAlester’s other returning starter, 5-6 junior guard Kirsty Cook, averaged only about three points per game as a sophomore. Holt said he expects Cook — known as a defensive specialist — to be more of a factor on the offensive end of the floor this season.

“I’m definitely looking for her to score more, but where she helps us is defensively,” he explained. “She’s a very tough, physical player. She’s not afraid to get in there and mix it up.”

McAlester’s other starters are 5-6 guard Ashley Hackler and 5-9 senior forward Jacy Wilkins, who both gave Holt good minutes off the bench last season, and 5-5 freshman Lashonda Green, who could eventually replace Bigham as the face of the Lady Buffs’ basketball program.

“She’s an extremely talented player,” Holt said of Green, who averaged 20 points per game for the McAlester eighth-grade squad last year. “Lashonda is an athletic, quick guard who has stepped in and is really doing a good job for us.”

Whitney Anderson, a 5-8 junior post player; Jami Steidley, a 5-8 sophomore post player; and Leslie Huff, a 5-6 junior guard, complete McAlester’s eight-deep rotation. Holt said the Lady Buffs have a chance to make some noise next week, despite the talent of their competition.

“I want to be playing the late (championship) game (on Wednesday),” Holt said. “I know Crowder and (Tulsa) Union (the Mid-America top seed and the likely opponent for the McAlester-Crowder winner Tuesday) are going to have something to say about that.

“A good week will be us coming up there and playing hard and representing the school well. I would love to come out of there with three wins or two wins, but we know when two good teams go at it, either one can win.”

With several make-up games and a scheduled appearance in the Tournament of Champions at the McAlester Expo Center all on tap in the weeks following the Mid-America, Holt said his team is facing a busy January. He added, however, that the prestigious Ada tournament will be one of the highlights of his team’s season.

“I’ve been a head coach for 15 years, and I’ve wanted to come to the Mid-America since I came to watch the tournament as an assistant coach,” Holt said. “I think it’s a great opportunity to be invited to it. It should be a good chance to gauge where we’re at and how we stack up against some of the best teams in the state in all classes, and the three-day tournament is the same format as the state tournament.

“You want that competition, and if you can compete with the best teams, it has to make you better,” he added. “We’ve got the Tournament of champions plus a couple of make-up games, so a lot of our season is going to be packed into about a three-week period.”

In Crowder, the Lady Buff will face a team that has been on a serious early-season roll, especially defensively. The Demonettes have surrendered less than 32 points per game in their first nine outings, and they have given up just 65 points in their last three games combined.

Tucker, who averaged over 20 points per game last season, leads an offense that is averaging 59.5 points per game, and the Demonettes already have one signature win this season, a 57-54 triumph over 2A No. 5 Oktaha (the Lady Tigers’ only loss in nine games) at Crowder on Nov. 20.

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